A walk down memory lane

Bergen seen through the eyes of a Norwegian-American scholar

Photo: Robin Strand / Norphoto / visitBergen.com
Bryggen, the historic old German Wharf, is beautiful any season of the year and a beloved subject for photographers from all over the world. Its colorful houses bring cheer to a fall landscape with their bright colors of red, orange, yellow, and white. The structures were first built by the German merchants of the Hanseatic League.

Chesterton, Ind.

My first visual impressions of Norway came from children’s books and National Geographic. I saw that some parts of Norway seemed to be full of hills, forests, and small farms. Other parts were mountainous, with cities and villages clustered at sea level, and forests rising up the mountain slopes. There were snowcaps and glaciers on the taller mountains. Life seemed to center on fishing boats and freighters. The fjords of western Norway fascinated me; but I knew that Dad’s family was from the east, and that was what I wanted to see the most. I first lived in Norway in 1972, but it was nearly 10 years before I finally saw Vestlandet and Bergen. 

In 1981, my wife and I headed to Norway on a new adventure. Her grandparents were strilar, from farmer-fishing families in Lindås, north of Bergen. I had signed a contract to teach at Hillestveit School in Langevåg, a fishing village on the island of Bømlo. We had shipped our car to Norway, and Bergen was just four hours away by island-hopping and ferryboats. We decided to spend all the school holidays in Bergen, and staying with my mother-in-law’s cousin there, we had an excellent opportunity to learn about the city and its people. 

Photo courtesy of Jim Nelson
American scholar Jim Nelson has made many trips to Bergen over the years.

Many people consider Bergen to be Norway’s most beautiful city. Its setting is dramatic and beautiful: The heart of the city covers both sides of Vågen (the Bay), a narrow bay about 4/5 miles long, and the peninsula between Vågen and Byfjorden (the City Fjord). The mountains called Fløyen and Ulriken rise east and south of Vågen, and Puddefjorden lies not far west of Vågen. The city’s many medieval buildings enrich the distinctive atmosphere of downtown Bergen, several of them overlooking the waterfront. 

Protected from the brunt of North Atlantic storms by the islands of Store Sotra and Askøy, Bergen was ideally situated to become a medieval trading center for cod and other fish from north Norway, herring from Haugesund and Bømlo waters, and timber and animal hides from other parts of the country. First settled around 1020 A.D., Bergen received a city charter from King Olav Kyrre in 1070. It was Norway’s capital from 1270 until 1319. As most commerce and travel were by sea until the mid-20th century, Bergen was strategically located throughout the nation’s development. Today, the population is about 280,000.

Bergen was a major point of entry for the Black Death (svartedauden, the bubonic plague), in 1349–51. Roughly 50% to 70% of Norway’s population died. Between the 1360s and 1754, Bergen was a Hanseatic League port. The Hamburg, Bremen, and Lübeck merchants from Germany were effective business owners, but they repeatedly tried to ban foreign and Norwegian traders and secure a monopoly. The old wooden Hansa buildings on Bryggen (the Wharf) are reconstructions of the originals (14th century to 15th century), rebuilt after numerous fires. The smaller buildings date from 1702, the newer ones from 1955. 

Photo: Askjell N. Raudøy / Flickr
Sjømannsmonumentet, the Sailor’s Monument, depicts Bergen’s maritime history with 12 massive bronze figures, from the time of the Vikings through the 20th century.

Although Bergen is a major center for commerce, finance, shipping, transportation, tourism, and Norway’s offshore petroleum industry, the city has a relatively relaxed atmosphere. Encircled by fjords and mountains, Bergensers are constantly aware of the beauty and forces of nature. The numerous medieval buildings that survive in the city center add to the feeling of a less frenetic lifestyle. The ponds, small lakes, parks, and harbor areas attract a variety of seafowl and migratory birds. 

Imagine taking a relaxed walk from the art museum complex by the octagonal lake, Lille Lungegårdsvannet, toward Vågen, a few blocks away. The little lake has been enclosed in an artificially made basin extending for roughly two city blocks. It attracts many birds, including seagulls, guillemots, auks, and petrels. A wide pedestrian walkway, graced by park benches and shade trees, encircles the lake. A tranquil atmosphere pervades the area. 

A row of art galleries faces the lake’s southwest side. They are low buildings with graceful facades. The Rasmus Meyer Collections (Rasmus Meyers samlinger) contain a remarkable display of Norwegian art, including the world’s third largest collection of Edvard Munch’s paintings. 

Just one block behind the art galleries is Grieghallen (the Grieg Hall), a modern concert hall completed in 1978. It is the home of Musikselskabet Harmonien, Norway’s oldest symphony orchestra, established in 1765, and the chief venue for the Bergen International Festival, held in May and June, every year since 1953.  

Leaving the small lake and crossing Christies gate, you can walk through Byparken, a small but pleasant park with an elegant, circular music pavilion from 1888 at the center. Crossing Olav Kyrres gate, you enter a wide thoroughfare called Nedre Ole Bulls plass (Lower Ole Bull’s Square). On the right side is a large, modern Peppe’s Pizza restaurant. 

The stark modern façade of Hotel Norge is on the left, with a canopied sidewalk in front. The hotel faces onto a beautiful reflecting pool and fountain. At the center of the pool is a mound of flat boulders, atop which is a dramatic statue of Norway’s virtuoso Ole Bull playing his violin. The water from the fountain pours over the rocks and into the pool. The overall effect has mesmerized me every time I’ve visited the fountain. The artist has captured Ole Bull’s stance, as he perhaps finishes a performance with a final flourish. 

Just beyond the Ole Bull statue is the broad expanse of Torgallmenningen, an avenue stretching for several blocks as a vast pedestrian walkway. Near many pubs, restaurants, stores and gift shops, Torgallmenningen is a popular place for friends to meet—and for weary shoppers to rest on benches. The street was created after a great city fire in 1580 and gained its present name in 1702. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
While Bergen is known for its many quite old buildings, modern structures blend in with the urban landscape. With its central location, it is a great place to meet up with friends.

The prominent landmarks here are Sundts varemagasin (Sundt’s Shopping Mall), formerly known as Sundts magasin (Sundt’s Department Store) and the massive statue Sjømannsmonumentet (the Sailor’s Monument). Sundts magasin, built in 1938, was Bergen’s flagship merchandise house for many years. Sjømannsmonumentet was designed by artist Dyre Vaa, completed in 1945 and dedicated in 1950. Surrounded by a reflecting pool, the square monument depicts 12 figures associated with the evolution of Bergen as a maritime city. They range from Vikings through 18th-century seafarers to sailors, fishermen, and merchants of 19th- and 20th-century Bergen. 

Walking in Torgallmenningen fills me with memories that stretch over nearly 40 years. As I glance back over my shoulder up Torggaten, I see Skipperstuen (the Captain’s Cabin), the old Bergen pub where I spent many hours in the company of my old friend Jan Johansen, as we enjoyed the wonderful Hansa beer and talked with a colorful variety of Bergensers, including old sailors and fishermen. Jan is from Rjukan in Telemark, but he met and married a woman from Bergen. He has lived there for most of his life and loves it! 

Passing Sjømannsmonumentet, I remember the local celebrities I’ve seen near Fisketorget, which is within sight. One of them was Vibeke Løkkeberg, actor, author, and one of Norway’s earliest female film directors. Another was singer-songwriter Johannes Kleppevik, locally known as “kystens trubadur” (the troubadour of the coast), for his many songs about life on his native island of Sotra and other places in surrounding Hordaland.

Fisketorget is situated at the head of Vågen, with a commanding view down both sides of the bay. The left shore is home to docks for the huge, ocean-going passenger ferries that connect Bergen with Haugesund and Stavanger to the south, and Trondheim and north Norway in the other direction. A three-story building near the wharf affords sale of fresh fish even in the winter, though the large open-air fish stalls at the south end of the bay remain popular with tourists. 

The invigorating smell of salt sea air is everywhere in downtown Bergen, but it is strongest around Vågen. The east side of Vågen certainly holds the most storied tourist attractions in Bergen. First comes the tight row of wooden buildings on Bryggen, originally built by the Hanseatic League merchants to house their workers centuries ago. These august buildings have burned several times, but detailed plans and descriptions allowed them to be rebuilt each time, most recently in the 1950s. Ironically, they were originally built with no heating at all, to avoid the rapid spread of fires. The workers, German men who had to agree not to marry local Norwegian women, had to keep themselves warm in the winter months as best they could. Today, most of the buildings house gift shops, a bakery, and some excellent restaurants. 

Just beyond the Hansa buildings is Bergenhus festning (Bergenhus Fortress), a castle-and-fortress complex built to defend the city from naval invasions. At one time, it included the royal residence and the home of the bishop of Bergen. Some of the buildings date from the 1240s. Best known are the massive Rosenkrantztårnet (the Rosenkrantz Tower), dating from the 1270s and rebuilt in the 1560s; and the restored Håkonshallen (King Håkon’s Hall), built before 1261. The fortress only came under enemy fire once, during the 12-day Battle of Vågen in August 1662. A cannonball, lodged high up on the wall of Bergens domkirke (Bergen Cathedral), is thought to have been fired from an English warship during that siege. The powerful explosion of an ammunition ship in Vågen in 1944 damaged the fortress buildings extensively. They were restored after the war, and today the interior of Håkonshallen is nothing less than magnificent.

Bergen is a storehouse of elegant buildings from the medieval period through modern times. They include several beautiful churches: Korskirken (Holy Cross Church), a stone church dating from about 1150 A.D.; Bergens domkirke (Bergen Cathedral, originally built in 1150); the elegant, unique Romanesque-Gothic Mariakirken (St. Mary’s Church), south of Bergenhus festning, built in the mid-1100s and rebuilt around 1250; and Nykirken (The New Church, 1662) at Nordnes, on the west side of Vågen in the Nordnes (North Point) district. Johanneskirken (St. John’s Church) is noteworthy for being the tallest building in Bergen. The brick church from the 1890s sits on a ridge high above Torgallmenningen and downtown Bergen. Its central steeple is 200 feet tall. I have attended services and concerts in several of these churches, each one a very memorable occasion.

But for me, the Bergensers themselves are the city’s main attraction! They tend to be moderately outgoing, and their dialect is delightfully unique and enjoyable to listen to. Bergen dialect is technically bokmål, closely related to the dialects spoken in Oslo and much of eastern Norway; it has been influenced by the surrounding nynorsk dialects of rural Hordaland. Bergen remained socially isolated for many years; people who moved to Bergen had to learn to understand and speak bergensk to sell their fish at Fisketorget, get jobs working in the city, or simply to be treated in a civil manner. Many people from outside of Bergen would refer to bergensk as a separate language. 

Local patriotism runs high in Bergen. Bergensers turn out in great numbers to celebrate the national holiday on May 17. When I spent Syttende mai in Bergen in 1996, there were heavy, dark rainclouds overhead all morning. Five minutes after the parade started, it began to rain. Almost as on cue, hundreds of umbrellas suddenly appeared and opened all around us, nearly in unison! Then I thought, “Where else but in Bergen, the only city I know of with a coin-operated umbrella dispenser downtown!”

My last trip to Bergen was in December 2019, when my wife and I joined a group of Purdue University Northwest students in a travel-study course in American and Norwegian noir fiction. Our host for several days was the well-known writer Gunnar Staalesen, creator of the character of Norwegian criminal investigator Varg Veum. As many memories came back to life, we also made many new ones.

Upon arrival, several of the younger students took Fløibanen, the downtown funicular railroad, to the tourist observation point high up on Mount Fløyen. I had already been there several times and was happy to see how thrilled these young American students were over the experience of viewing Norway’s most beautiful city from that elevation. Watching their happy expressions and listening to their descriptions of the city, mountain, and fjord panorama they had just seen, I thought: This is indeed as good as it gets. I’ll bet they will all return to Bergen; I know that I will!

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jim Nelson

Jim Nelson is a Norwegian-American scholar and musician, who lived and taught in Norway for over 18 years. Nelson is an expert in the Norwegian immigration to the United States, Norwegian folk music, and Scandinavian immigrant music. Now based in Chesterton, Ind., he continues to perform and is president of the Scandiana Sons of Norway lodge.